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Former neighbor found guilty of 1957 murder of 7-year-old girl

Jack Daniel McCullough

Jack Daniel McCullough

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Updated: October 16, 2012 6:07AM

Jack Daniel McCullough’s relatives testified against McCullough, then cheered Friday as he was convicted of kidnapping and murdering 7-year-old Maria Ridulph more than 50 years ago.

His half-siblings still had something else they wanted to do: apologize for McCullough’s 1957 slaying of the Sycamore girl and the silence of another family member that stalled his prosecution for decades.

McCullough’s mother, Eileen Tessier, implicated her son in Ridulph’s still-unsolved murder in 1994 as she lay dying of cancer, two of his half-sisters testified during his DeKalb County trial.

Her claim ultimately triggered the Illinois State Police investigation that resulted in the former Sycamore man being charged last year with snatching and killing the little girl who lived only a few blocks away.

“I’m so sorry for the Ridulphs that it took so long, and I apologize on behalf of my mother that this took so long,” McCullough’s half-sister, Janet Tessier, tearfully told Ridulph’s relatives after he was convicted of murder, kidnapping and infant abduction.

Ridulph’s two surviving siblings said they aren’t angry with McCullough’s family members, whom they embraced in the courtroom as the guilty verdicts drew loud cheers and applause.

“We have absolutely no animosity for that family at all,” said Charles Ridulph, Maria’s older brother. “We know how difficult it was for them, and we’re so thankful for their strength and their courage to follow this thing through.”

The emotional reaction of the two families contrasted with the frosty way McCullough, a one-time cop in Washington State, took the verdicts that could keep him behind bars for the rest of his life.

The dapper, white-haired McCullough sat expressionless next to his attorneys as Judge James Hallock convicted him in what authorities said was one of the oldest murder cases prosecuted in the United States.

McCullough already had been acquitted in April of unrelated charges that he sexually assaulted one of his half-sisters in 1962 — allegations that first surfaced during the Ridulph murder investigation.

After Friday’s guilty verdicts, Hallock revoked McCullough’s bond and set a Nov. 30 sentencing date.

His convictions followed a four-day trial that offered only circumstantial evidence to link McCullough to Ridulph’s baffling disappearance on Dec. 3, 1957 as she played in her neighborhood with a friend as the first snow of the winter fell.

Her disappearance triggered massive searches and an FBI investigation that prompted requests from President Dwight Eisenhower for daily updates, but the brown-eyed second grader was never seen alive again.

Ridulph’s decomposed body was found nearly five months later, dumped in a grove of trees outside Galena in the northwest corner of the state.

Her death was ruled a murder, but no one was charged until McCullough was arrested in July 2011.

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell described charging McCullough with a five-decade-old murder as “the hardest decision I’ve ever made” but said he felt he had no choice after reviewing the evidence.

“We were all convinced he did it,” Campbell said simply.

The crucial evidence included former Sycamore resident Kathy Sigman Chapman identifying a 1950s-vintage picture of McCullough as the young man she saw with Maria just before her friend disappeared.

Chapman, who was 8 years old in 1957, testified that the man walked up to her and her friend, introduced himself as “Johnny,” then asked if they wanted a piggyback ride.

McCullough’s birth name was John Tessier — a name he changed as an adult to Jack McCullough, relatives and prosecutors have said.

Chapman testified that she ran home to get her mittens and when she returned, Maria and the man were gone.

On Friday, she was satisfied that Maria’s killer has been held responsible.

“The weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Maria finally has the justice she deserves,” said Chapman, 62, adding that she recognized McCullough as Maria’s kidnapper as soon as she was shown his photo by state police in 2010.

“You never forget a face,” Chapman said.

The judge apparently agreed, calling Chapman’s identification of McCullough’s picture “most convincing.”

Two of McCullough’s half-sisters testified that they never saw McCullough return to the family’s small house on the night Ridulph disappeared, but said they heard their mother tell police he had been home.

Janet Tessier and another half-sister, Mary Hunt, said during the trial their mother made a deathbed statement that linked McCullough to Ridulph’s disappearance, though their own testimony differed in some ways.

“John did it, John did it — and you have to tell someone,” Tessier said her mother told her.

Tessier said after that 1994 statement, she went to several police agencies with that information, but got nowhere.

In 2008, she emailed the Illinois State Police, who began their investigation after Capt. Tony Rapacz made a phone call to her.

“She was very credible, very believable,” Rapacz said of Tessier. “I felt there was something there.”

A state police investigator assigned to the case, Brion Hanley, interviewed McCullough’s relatives to obtain statements and ultimately collected 1950s photos of McCullough and others for Chapman to identify.

Arrested in Seattle in July 2011, McCullough repeatedly denied being involved in Ridulph’s death, though police said he made disturbing statements about the girl, including referring to her as a “beautiful little Barbie doll.”

Three inmates jailed with McCullough in DeKalb County testified he admitted killing Ridulph, though one said McCullough claimed he accidentally suffocated her, while two other testified McCullough said he strangled Ridulph with a wire.

A forensic anthropologist who examined Ridulph’s exhumed body in 2011 concluded she had been stabbed, citing “cut marks” left on her breastbone and backbone.

McCullough’s attorneys argued he should be acquitted because there was no physical or direct evidence tying him to Ridulph’s death.

“There is an absolute absence of evidence,” Public Defender Thomas McCulloch said, as he asked unsuccessfully for an acquittal.

Ridulph’s relatives said there was no sense of victory after the guilty verdicts, only relief that someone had finally been held responsible for Maria’s death.

“This has been a very difficult and horrible time for our family and we’re grateful it’s come to a conclusion,” said Charles Ridulph.

Ridulph, who was 11 when his younger sister vanished, said it was difficult for relatives to accept that Maria had been harmed not by a stranger, but by someone living in their small, safe community.

“Never once did we think it was a neighbor,” said Ridulph. “I think we could just not bring it in our hearts to think a neighbor could have created this horrible crime.”

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